Symbols in our Everyday Lives

Well-Known World Brand Logotypes

Sonja and I are always thinking about ways we can strengthen and deepen our students’ understanding of literary elements such as symbolism. In our book Teaching Interpretation we discuss the various ways we can teach our students to identify symbols in texts and interpret their meanings. This work can be challenging for students because it is abstract. Sonja and I are constantly discussing the way that we can concretize this work and scaffold it for students.

Sonja and I like to meet at our favorite Panera Bread each weekend in order to discuss our challenges and successes in the classroom. One topic that we consistently discuss is the use of digital texts (such as the image above) to concretize and scaffold the abstract work of interpretation. After discussing this work and trying it in the classroom, we found that this minilesson helps teach students about symbolism:

Symbols are everywhere! One way to make your study of symbolism concrete is to show your students a collage like the one above. Ask your students if they can identify the symbols in this image. They are logos. They are images that represent companies and brands. This is the important part- this is an image, however, it represents something more.

Talk about the ways these symbols play a role in our everyday lives. Choose one symbol from the collage and discuss its deeper meaning. What do you think of when you see this image? A feeling? A desire? A time in your life? Next, have students try this work. Again, continue to reiterate that this image represents more than purely what it is. This will help strengthen your students’ understanding about symbols and how they represent more than what they are. For example, the Coca Cola symbol might literally represent a soft drink company, however, it might conjure up memories of summer camp, picnics, or sitting on the front porch with a grandparent. It symbolizes more.

This is a great way to kick-start your discussion of symbolism or strengthen the work your students are already doing in the classroom. This work transfers beautifully from digital texts like the image above to print-based texts like chapter books and picture books where the characters have special objects that symbolize more.


Typically found wearing mismatched socks, Dana Johansen spends her time teaching fifth grade in Connecticut, negotiating with her yellow lab about doggy dinner options, and plopping down on the floor in bookstore aisles to find new reads. She has taught elementary and middle school for fourteen years. Dana is a doctoral student at Teachers College, Columbia University where she studies blended learning in reading and writing workshop.

The Symbolism of The Seasons 2

Autumn Illusion

Have you ever tried something new with your group of students and thought, this could either be a hit or a complete miss? Last week, I wrote about my plans for writing workshop with my students. I had hoped that  my students would engage in discussions around the symbolism of the seasons and that this might result in some powerful writing. It did! It worked so well with my 6th graders, I tried it with my 7th graders, too.

Here are two graphic organizers completed by a 6th grader and a 7th grader in their small writing circles. Students worked cooperatively to brainstorm both literal and figurative associations with each season.


6th grader


Next, I asked students to write statements about each season that seemed to capture their symbolism.


7th grader

What now? Students have selected a season to write a vignette, poem, or short story about. I’ve asked them to think of the season as more than just the setting for their writing, but almost as a character itself. They will use their graphic organizers and statements to include both literal and figurative associations of the season in their writing. I’ve reminded them to turn to the work of Cynthia Rylant (November) and Langston Hughes (Early Autumn) for guidance if they’re stuck.


Writing workshop today was quiet, in the best way! A few students needed some encouragement, but for the most part, students generated powerful ideas and their hands were flying across the page. In my next post, I’ll share some of their writing!



Teaching “Symbolism” Digitally- La Luna

DSC00888I like to think about ways I can teach my reading minilessons with technology and multimedia. A personal challenge of mine is to find ways to teach any reading minilesson with technology. Not that I want to use digital texts all the time, but I like to think creatively about how I might use them and if they offer less, more, or equal value to my minilessons. Ultimately, I like to think about “How can technology support and enhance my reading workshop?”

When I first saw La Luna, a DisneyPixar short film, I knew it would be an awesome text to teach symbolism. First, it doesn’t have any words, making it is accessible to all students. Second, after teaching a quick strategy for finding important objects, students can identify symbolic objects easily in the film. Last, it has a lovely, heartwarming message. I LOVE using it and my students do too!

I usually do this lesson as my third or fourth symbolism lesson- that way students are already familiar with the idea of symbolism. I say something like, “Today we are going to look for symbolism in a text and create interpretations about it. In order to do this, I am going to teach you a strategy for finding symbols. The strategy is to look for objects that repeat over and over OR seem very important. We’re going to try this today.”

Try this together using La Luna. Create a T-Chart and have students list repeated or important objects they see in the short film. (A completed T-Chart is provided toward the end of this post.)

As students watch La Luna, you may want to model creating a list on the whiteboard or chart paper along with them- especially at first. I like to pause the film at different parts in order to model jotting initial thoughts about what the objects might symbolize. For example, you might pause to discuss the symbolic nature of the boat, ladder, hats, or brooms.

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la luna

Have students share their ideas with a partner or with a small group.

At this point, I would stop the lesson— but only for the day. I would want students to go off and try this strategy with the books they are reading. I would circle back to their ideas the next day and teach a new strategy for creating deeper interpretations about the symbols they found (and possibly uncovering themes, too!)

You can use this strategy with other digital texts. This lesson also works well with Disney’s “Let it Go” song from Frozen. OR with Disney’s Mulan

On Teaching Interpretation

I want my students to be able to think for themselves. This is my teaching goal everyday. Teaching interpretation in a way that enables my students to think for themselves has been something that I’ve thought a lot about for the past decade.

It began ten years ago when I was teaching fourth grade. We were reading the book Tuck Everlasting. As a whole class, we were noticing Natalie Babbitt’s use of time: sunrise, noon, sunset, and midnight. I had created an assignment for my students- “Note each event that is associated with a time period.” We were analyzing the connection between the mood & intensity of the event and the time of day when it occurred.

I will never forget one of my students asking me, “Ms. Johansen, if you hadn’t told me to look for this, how would I know?” At first, I laughed inwardly- such an astute question from a fourth grader. But then, I was fearful. I didn’t know how to answer. So I answered sternly and quickly, “This is why you have teachers. They will tell you what to look for.” This was one of my teaching-cringe moments. The moment when you know you are giving a terrible answer. My student wanted to be independent. She was looking for a strategy to notice the author’s use of mood, time, and symbolism. She wanted to learn how to think for herself. Above all, she was excited to learn how to notice hidden gems in a text and make her own interpretations. I let her down that day. And I’ve always remembered it.

At the time, I didn’t know how to answer her. I didn’t know which strategies to teach or even that there were strategies that could help her. I was simply making assignments and expecting my students to follow my directions. Now I know differently. I LOVE teaching strategies to students. I cannot imagine teaching any other way. Students need strategies to make the implicit, explicit, and the abstract, concrete. They can do this hard, thinking work on their own.

Redoes are vital. Since my student asked me that question ten years ago, I’ve had a dozen or so redoes. Now when students ask that question, I answer, “That’s a great question! I’m so happy that you want to uncover parts of a text that may seem hidden, on your own! Let’s talk about the strategies you can use and which elements you can be on the lookout for. I bet you’ll find many hidden gems on your own!”

Teaching strategies for helping students think about an author’s use of time and mood:

  1. Use the clip “Decision” from Disney’s Mulan ( to discuss the time of day, light and dark, and weather used by the animators to create the mood of the scene. “Just like these animators, authors use the time of day to create the mood of the scene. It is important to notice the time of day in a story. It may be important and help you feel the mood of the scene.”
  2. Have students think about their own daily schedules. What moods do they associate with different times of the day? What activities take place at different times? How does light and darkness affect their moods and activities during the day. Why might this be important in texts as well?
  3. Use a text like Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt to keep track of the author’s use of time (sunrise, noon, sunset, and midnight) and the mood of the event. Creating a chart or using a graphic organizer is best for this lesson. Students may notice that moments of revelation happen at sunrise, whereas, moments of intense action and emotions happen at midnight. (It is also good to notice the colors associated with these time periods. They may be symbolic.)
  4. Most importantly: Create a classroom chart that lists the many ideas students may want to be on the lookout for in a text. “Time of Day” should be on that chart.